SOCHI, Russia – U.S. hockey head coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t find T.J. Oshie when the St. Louis Blues forward went back to the end of the bench following a miss in the penalty shootout against Russia on Saturday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Luckily, he found him because Oshie was able to out-duel Russia in an epic shootout 3-2 victory for the U.S. in Group A, and before an energized, pro-Russia crowd, which included Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the thrilling shootout, Oshie would score on his first shot against Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergie Bobrovski, and would be followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ James van Riemsdyk and the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, who would both miss.
From there, Bylsma took a chance and decided to stick with Oshie to take the rest of the penalty shots, and the 27-year-old would deliver. Oshie missed his second attempt, but would convert two of the next three to propel the U.S. to a memorable victory.
“I kept looking back seeing if anyone else was going to go,” Oshie said of being the constant shooter. “I told some of the boys on the last couple ‘I’m running out of moves here.’ So it was a little nerve-racking, but I got through it.”
Oshie may have felt a bit out of sorts, but he didn’t look it. The Washington state native smoothly skated to the goal with each shot, threading shots by Bobrovski.
“Obviously, I’m very disappointed,” said Bobrovski. “It was a shootout; we wanted more. It is heartbreaking.”
"I aged a couple of years in that shootout," Bylsma said. "We had other guys that are capable, but T.J. was the guy who was going well. It seemed like he was going to score every time he went."
Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick also played a big role in the shootout, with three saves against Russia’s top forwards. The Russians received one goal from former New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk and another from the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk.
But Quick was able to save one shot from Kovalchuk and two by Datsyuk, while the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin missed Russia’s first attempt, and Kovalchuk missed the last.
Quick had 29 saves in the game.
“I couldn’t do it without Quick shutting the door there,” said Oshie.
After 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime, the score was 2-2. Russia got on the board first with a goal in the second period by Datsyuk, but the Americans would even it up less than eight minutes later when Cam Fowler found the back of the net on a power play.
Pavelski added a power-play goal in the third, and the U.S. appeared to be in good shaped in the final 10 minutes. But Datsyuk would score off a power play moments after Dustin Brown went to the box in what turned out to be a costly kneeing penalty.
Alexander Ovechkin was not much of a factor, as the Washington Capitals forward had some solid chances but didn’t convert for Russia. He had two clear shots in a second-period power play, but was denied by Quick. Ovechkin took a total of seven shots in the game.
Though the game was only a preliminary, it was a major boost for the U.S. who entered the game with a 3-8-1 all-time record against Russia/Soviet Union. The two teams could meet after group play, with the host nation looking for revenge.
“You know what, it’s still early,” said Pavelski. “This was the second game here. We came out, we played a good game. We knew they wanted to win. Obviously, they’ve got a lot of pride. They’re going to play hard. We were on top here today, so it’s a good feeling. We’ll move forward.”
The Americans have won both games in Sochi, and will face Slovenia, while Russia will meet Slovakia in their final group match.
But the atmosphere and spirit behind the U.S. facing Russia on their home ice could remain the key hockey story from the 2014 Winter Olympics. There were points where true hockey enthusiasts may have been thrilled by such an enthralling match, and between two countries who spent decades as adversaries in the Cold War.
American fans at Bolshoy were certainly entertained.
Claudio Madrazo of Long Island, N.Y., described the first period as “super intense.” He cited how the U.S. would need to show grit to overcome a big Russian squad with marquee names in front of a boisterous crowd.
On numerous occasions, the Russian supporters would chant “shayba,” the Russian word for “puck,” and “Rossiya,” which is how they pronounce “Russia.” The Russian fans would often use those chants to drain out any “USA” chants from the American contingent, which was greatly outnumbered.
“The atmosphere is great,” said Matthew Almeida, a 22-year-old consultant living in Manhattan. “Everyone is really friendly. It’s pretty rambunctious. It’s very spirited, ‘Olympic game-style.’ There are not a ton of [Americans] here, but we’ve been very vocal, and patriotic. The Russians are loud, but they’re not anti-American.”
Karen Duffy of Chicago accompanied her friend Anne Murray from Nova Scotia to Sochi, after the two attended hockey games at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Neither felt that the U.S. was in “hostile territory” while playing in Russia.
“It’s wonderful,” said Duffy. “The stadium is gorgeous. Everyone is really friendly, and it’s a lot of fun.”
In an example of the camaraderie of the U.S. – Russia matchup, a boisterous Russian fan who had been sitting near them during the first period joyfully interrupted the interview to re-start a former conversation.
As a Canadian, Murray is an impartial observer in the U.S. – Russia match. She didn’t sense even the slightest bit of antagonism between the fans.
“It’s friendly. It’s love. We’re all in the stand hugging each other,” said Murray, who claims she would have taught Nova Scotia superstar Sidney Crosby if he had not moved to Minnesota for high school.
“The Russians want pictures with the Americans, and with the Canadians. We’re all hugging and laughing.”
The way the arena handled things like music and videos, it might be hard to tell you’re at a game in Russia. The overhead monitor even implemented the “kiss cam” during a break in action, a series of shots that catches couples in the crowd within a graphic of a heart, which is a staple at many American sporting events. There were even cheerleaders decked out in blue and white, with pom poms.
But it was the action on the ice that was truly unique.
“You can’t appreciate Russian hockey until you see it live,” Murray said. “They just dominate. And they just exhilarate to the net, and their skills are phenomenal. It’s great hockey.”
It was also great hockey when the last time the two nations met on one country’s home ice during the Olympics. The "Miracle on Ice” is still considered among the greatest moments in American hockey history, when the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union to reach the gold medal game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Both countries were keenly aware of that game entering Saturday’s matchup.
When Oshie delivered the game-winning penalty shot, Americans couldn’t help but think about how they beat Russia again.
Kings fans decked out in Quick jerseys, Giovanni Barone from Long Beach, Calif., and Robert Mathieu, of West L.A., were thrilled as they made their way out of Bolshoy. They had nothing but praise over the energetic atmosphere and excitement from the game, claiming it “felt like a gold-medal match" as they recalled the 1980 U.S. victory.
“It was drama, man. It had everything. Amazing game,” said Mathieu.
Many would probably agree with Mathieu. Saturday’s result may not have been a “miracle,” but it sure was dramatic.